My problem has never been alcohol. If alcohol had been the problem, I wouldn’t have needed to recover. I would have just quit drinking and my problem would have been put on the shelf. There it could stay forever—never again would it need to trouble me as long as I didn’t drink.
My problem was not alcohol. My problem was that my only solution to life was alcohol. It may have been a solution that carried lots of future complications, but alcohol was the one surefire way I knew to feel significantly better about life.
I know algebra drives some people crazy, but let me try to illustrate this
If, ALCOHOL = My Problem, then when I remove the left side of the equation (ALCOHOL), then the right is balanced by removing My Problem.
If, though, ALCOHOL = My Solution to Life, then removing alcohol simply leaves me adrift, alone and answerless.
Let me give two concrete examples of what I mean, each of which took place long before I got sober. In 1978, in the Army in Germany, I was using a lot of alcohol, primarily powdered alcohol although a fair amount of liquid as well. The powdered alcohol that brought me down for a 10-count was heroin. I’ll detail elsewhere this time in my life, but let me say I was lucky enough to have a commanding officer whom I could go to and explain I was addicted to dope and ask for help. Instead of starting discharge proceedings against me, Captain Baines referred me to an intensive 28-day rehab program at Landstuhl Army Hospital. Despite the program’s having no intellectual, spiritual or theoretical center—it used a widely-discredited treatment called Scream Therapy—it helped me stop using drugs. (Once I was out, I simply transitioned to an all-liquid alcohol regimen, but that’s another story.) My only problem during the 28 days was they wouldn’t let me use any of my solutions to life. Of course, after four or five days I was safely detoxed off my physical addiction to heroin, but that didn’t stop my need for a solution. Little by slowly, like a man in an airproof room recognizing he’s running out of oxygen, I began to lose my mind. By Day 26, without having a clue this might be related to my need for something, anything to help me get out of myself, I slashed my wrists in the bathroom so I could watch the blood pool on the floor. Of course, I was discovered, sent to the psych ward and observed there for a week before being allowed to return to rehab and graduate.
In 1986, I was a seminary student at a conservative graduate school, a married Baptist minister, who couldn’t let people know I drank at all. It hadn’t been so bad when I’d lived 45 minutes away from the church—I could still have a few beers when I felt like it (or get drunk and pass out on Christmas Day on my in-law’s couch). My wife at the time and I, though, moved to be closer to our church, and once again I became the man using up oxygen. Within a couple months, I had invented a new sport—throwing myself face-first down flights of stairs—started feeling I was crazy and cutting my wrists. I ended up in another psychiatric hospital—where I was treated for depression but not asked in any detail about my drinking. I managed to complete my stay in that psychiatric hospital, get a divorce, leave the church and begin drinking again—like a gentleman.
Again, if my problem had been alcohol, I wouldn’t have needed recovery. I would simply stop drinking, my problems would dry up and I’d go about my business. My challenge was that drinking worked in an immediate way—with alcohol, my life might be unmanageable, but without it, my life was in danger. My experience taught me avoiding alcohol led to suicide. Like a man living on credit cards, I might know in one part of my brain that this couldn’t continue, while the rest of my being cried out not to stop. I got very good at ignoring that first part of my brain and continued drinking for another 20 years, sometimes more, sometimes less, but with a steady upward climb. By the end of my drinking, I was a man on the Golden Gate bridge, trying to decide whether to jump left into the bay or right into the oncoming traffic.
I’m not a God guy today—whether there is a Big Joker in the Sky or the universe is an unsigned masterpiece makes little difference to me—but I know something happened to me at the jumping-off point, so that I sought help instead of destruction. Instead of drowning or jumping into traffic, I got off the bridge.
And so can you.
This very moment, you may be reading this with the shock of recognition, of identification with my predicament. It may be you have grown used to headaches in the morning, an ever-increasing sense of dread deep in the gut, the knowledge you shouldn’t go on but you CAN’T STOP NOW. It may be you’re contemplating suicide, homicide, uxoricide (a real word—look it up), bossicide (a made-up word—sound it out) or any of a number of –cides out there. It just be that alcohol and drugs have drained the color from your world, and these shades of gray offer no excitement at all. Whether you think you might have a bit of a drinking problem, or you know you’re an alcoholic, you can get help—not just from professionals with letters after their name (although they are not to be scoffed at) but from other men and women who have been where you are, where I was, and where you don’t need to stay.
Go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (NH Meetings: https://nhaa.net/ National Meeting List: https://www.aa.org/). Call the AA help line (Go hee for local help lines by state https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/find-local-aa). Hell, if you can’t bring yourself to do those things, write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll find some way to connect you with help.
Or you can stay on the bridge, choosing between tide and traffic.